Background/Storylines: Eagles (0-0) and Browns (0-0)
Some of you may remember in 2008 when the Philadelphia Flyers came back from one of the worst seasons in franchise history with the fitting, but ridiculous, slogan of “Vengeance Now”. Honestly, I think this year’s version of the Philadelphia Eagles would fittingly embrace that very same message following last year’s 8-8 disappointment. Jeffrey Lurie may have missed expectations by saying 8-8 was unacceptable for this season, but at least he’s setting the bar somewhere. Andy Reid may not be on an extremely short leash, but another failed season that continues to chip away at fans’ patience could land Reid on the unemployment block. He’s just screwed up too many “second chances”. Luckily for him, the team was able to improve in the offseason with the additions of DeMeco Ryans, Mychal Kendricks, Fletcher Cox and others. With this high-powered offense and much-improved, big-play defense, the pressure is on Sir Andy to bring home the bacon in 2012.
On the flip side, the Cleveland Browns are reeling. After going 4-12 last season, the Browns tried to turn the franchise around with 15 rookies on their 53-man roster. The most important of those are three early offensive selections, first-round picks Trent Richardson (RB) and Brandon Weeden (QB) along with second-round offensive tackle Mitchell Schwartz. Even with the nice injection of young talent into the roster, injuries and pending suspensions to key players—Scott Fujita (who will likely not suit up even with the recent news that the bounty suspensions were overturned), Chris Gocong, James Michael-Johnson—have weakened the Cleveland LB corps to a point of near-collapse. Not to mention a recovering Richardson knee and a struggling Weeden, which make this offense even less dangerous than last season, a task that sounded nearly impossible but has seem to have been accomplished. Even without a suspension to star cornerback Joe Haden, these Browns are starting to understand the enormity of the task ahead of them as they face an Eagles team chomping at the bit.
Fantasy Watch: LeSean McCoy (PHI) and Josh Gordon (CLE)
If any fantasy owner (like me!) has LeSean McCoy on your team, there is literally no reason he should be on your bench. Even if one manages to get Arian Foster and Ray Rice on his team, benching Shady now would simply be the dumbest move of one’s fantasy career. Not only will Reid try to break in the offense early with some run-heavy drives, but the Browns’ extremely poor run defense is simply waiting for McCoy to run all over it. Even with a healthy front seven, I’d call this a favorable matchup, but with Scott Fujita rusty, Chris Gocong on the shelf and Phil Taylor and James-Michael Johnson inactive for this game, the Eagles will have no problem running the ball right up the middle for five-eight yards per play. With the offense set to give him 25-30 touches, there is no reason not to expect 130 yards and a touchdown or two from one of the league’s most exciting offensive players.
I originally had kicker Phil Dawson—and yes, I know how pathetic that sounds for the Browns offense. But if you have Josh Gordon and are in serious need of WR help, he could be a nice flex option as he faces rookie Brandon Boykin in their first NFL games. Gordon has shown explosiveness and playmaking ability this preseason, including this impressive catch against Nnamdi Asomugha in the third week of preseason. Whether he plays on the outside or in the slot, Gordon is a nice option for any deep league, and certainly the best on this Browns offense. Even though Trent Richardson is healthy and ready to go (via CBSSports), head coach Pat Shurmur has said that’s he’s going to take it slow with the rookie’s knee. Having two competent backups, Montario Hardesty and Brandon Jackson, only makes things worse for Richardson owners in Week 1.
Key Matchup: Eagles’ DEs vs Joe Thomas/Mitchell Schwartz
Brandon Weeden and Greg Little may not be Joe Montana and Jerry Rice—in fact, they’re as far from it as possible—but even the greatest QB-WR connections can’t function without a little pass protection. Seeing the Eagles strip sack Weeden twice two weeks ago makes this situation all the more dire for the Browns.
Even with two very good tackles, the Browns will have their hands full with the Eagles’ extremely deep defensive line. While the Eagles rotate in pass rushers Vinny Curry and Brandon Graham to help keep their starters fresh, the Browns won’t be able to do the same with Thomas and Schwartz. Facing a relentless pass rush from two of the best in the game is bad enough, but when they’re periodically relieved by younger, similarly-explosive end rushers in the wide-nine scheme, life as a tackle isn’t good. How Thomas and Schwartz handle the situation will be paramount if the Browns want to resemble anything close to respectable in their first outing of 2012.
X-Factor: Michael Vick (PHI) and D’Qwell Jackson (CLE)
I know calling the quarterback a team’s “X-Factor” is cliche, but let’s be honest. The only way the Eagles lose this game is if Vick plays sloppy, turnover-happy football. And it’s not only that: This game will set the tone for what can be a very promising season; seeing Vick struggle against a below-average defense won’t only lower Reid’s already shaky faith in his mobile QB, but also put Vick’s confidence to the test. While I have confidence that Vick can show resiliency like he did two years ago, it’s tough to imagine him coming back as strongly amid the disappointment and fan aversion this time around. Seeing him shine, on the other hand, could set the table for the team to do what it hasn’t done in franchise history: win the Super Bowl.
Like I said, the Browns’ defense is missing key LB pieces Scott Fujita, James-Michael Johnson and Chris Gocong. If they want to save face defensively, the key will be last season’s AFC combined tackles leader, middle linebacker D’Qwell Jackson. While I predicted a huge game from McCoy in the “Fantasy Watch” section, a solid, 2011-esque performance from Jackson could go a long way to ensuring that the Eagles don’t hit 40 by the mid-second quarter. The 4-3 formation suits him much better, and he is able to use his skill set, seeing as he makes up for elite size—vital in the 3-4—with explosiveness and textbook tackling. If he can continue to flourish, the Browns might be able to keep it interesting enough to make a late run and shock the world. If not, the game could be over before it even begins.
Prediction: Eagles 34, Browns 13
To be honest, the Eagles couldn’t have earned themselves a more fortunate Week 1 matchup. With so many new parts, especially on defense, they’ll need a week or two to continue refining the edges until the roster is ready to take on the league’s top teams. Fortunately, they get to play the Browns, a hopelessely inept team, right off the bat. Even if the Eagles make the occassional slip up, it won’t hurt them too badly against the Browns. If the game was being played at M&T Bank Stadium, Heinz Field or even MetLife Stadium, I’d be utilizing a completely different tone, but there simply isn’t much to worry about for us Eagles fans.